Nicknamed the Tiger for his fiery temperament, Georges Clemenceau was not averse to settling personal feuds by duel. He was anti-monarchy, anti-socialist and anti-Catholic. His father, Benjamin, who himself had been imprisoned for his republican views, was a doctor and although Clemenceau completed his medical studies, he didn’t take up the profession, being drawn instead to politics.
A staunch republican and troublemaker, like his father, Georges Clemenceau was once imprisoned for 73 days (some sources state 77 days) by Napoleon III’s government for publishing a republican newspaper and trying to incite demonstrations against the monarchy. In 1865, fearing another arrest, and possible incarceration on Devil’s Island, Clemenceau fled to the US, arriving towards the end of the American Civil War. He lived first in New York, where he worked as a journalist, and then in Connecticut where he became a teacher in a private girls’ school. Clemenceau married one of his American students, Mary Plummer, and together they had three children before divorcing seven years later. (Of his son, Clemenceau, known for his wit, said, ‘If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.’)
Five days after his divorce, Clemenceau returned to France and briefly worked as a doctor before returning to politics. In 1871, he witnessed France’s defeat to Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.
‘A soldier of democracy’
An intellectual, Georges Clemenceau was fascinated by Ancient Greek culture, supported the work of the French Impressionists, wrote a book on Jewish history, and translated into French the works of English philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Following France’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, Clemenceau opposed France’s colonial ambitions, arguing that the country needed to concentrate its efforts on extracting revenge on the Germans and recovering Alsace Lorraine, territory it had lost to the Germans as part of the French surrender.
In March 1906, Clemenceau was appointed Home Affairs Minister where he earned his ‘tiger’ nickname and gained a reputation as a fierce opponent of socialism and the trade unions, most famously, in May 1906, sending in the military to suppress a miners’ strike. From October 1906 until July 1909, Clemenceau served his first term as prime minister.
Having been ousted from power, Clemenceau travelled across South America advocating the benefits of democracy: ‘I am a soldier of democracy. It is the only form of government which can establish equality for all, and which can bring closer the ultimate goals: freedom and justice.’
‘I wage war’
During the early part of the First World War, Clemenceau, refusing a position within the government, became a vocal critic of France’s strategy, especially that of Joseph Joffre, chief of the French army. However, in November 1917, aged 76, he was appointed, for a second term, as prime minister, leading a coalition government and overseeing France’s role in the eventual defeat of Germany. (He also concurrently served as the Minister for War).
On returning to power, he promised, ‘No more pacifist campaigns, no more German intrigues. Neither treason, nor semi-treason: the war. Nothing but the war.’ He cracked down on all dissenters and doomsayers within France, authorised the execution of spies and traitors, most notoriously Mata Hari, and, in the words of Britain’s wartime prime minister, David Lloyd George, ‘possessed restless energy and indomitable courage’. He paid frequent visits to the trenches, helped improve the morale of the French troops and became known, affectionately, as ‘Father of Victory’. In March 1918, he famously said, ‘My home policy: I wage war. My foreign policy: I wage war. All the time I wage war.’
In the subsequent post-war Paris Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau found it ‘far easier to make war than peace’. He took a firm line, determined to see Germany crippled to prevent it from ever again becoming a military threat, but Britain and the US (represented by US president, Woodrow Wilson) were against such harsh measures, believing it vital to Europe’s future wellbeing that Germany be made stable. Lloyd George believed that Clemenceau’s proposals would ‘plunge Germany and the greater part of Europe into Bolshevism.’ Nonetheless, Clemenceau scored a symbolic victory – at his insistence, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles where, in 1871, the French had surrendered to the Germans.
On 19 February 1919, during the conference, Clemenceau survived an assassination attempt. His assailant fired from close range and one bullet, which hit the prime minister in the ribs, remained there for the rest of his life. Clemenceau joked that, ‘We have just won the most terrible war in history, yet here is a Frenchman who misses his target six out of seven times at point-blank range… I suggest that he be locked up for eight years, with intensive training in a shooting gallery.’
Although Clemenceau managed to negotiate Alsace Lorraine’s return to France, he had to compromise on too many points and he left the conference feeling that Germany had been dealt with too lightly. The French public agreed and took out their frustrations on Clemenceau. Dissatisfied with their prime minister’s performance at Versailles, he was voted out of office in the elections of January1920.
Finally, at the age of 80, the old tiger was able to retire. In his latter years, Clemenceau warned against a resurgent Germany, predicting a new war by 1940.
Georges Clemenceau died, aged 88, at home in Paris on 24 November 1929.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.